Some of my work on Updike was discussed on The Dish with Andrew Sullivan.
Some of my work on Ross Macdonald was discussed on Pretty Sinister Books.
Here is my interview with superstar music impresario Wendy Starland.
Here is my interview with Pulitzer Prize nominee Olympia Vernon.
Here is my interview with the editor of Best American Short Stories, Heidi Pitlor.
Here is my interview with acclaimed artist Emil Kazaz.
My musing on John D. Macdonald, Travis McGee, and the chicks was picked up on The Rap Sheet.

John D. MacDonald: A Deadly Shade of Gold

This wild, outrageous novel blasts forth from the page to rush out and meet life head on; its commentary and opinions on myriad subjects hold absolutely nothing back.  This major – this major American novel – can get you into trouble if you borrow its viewpoints liberally.  What do I mean by that?  Well, I posted Travis McGee’s disapproving remarks about Ernest Hemingway verbatim from this novel in a sycophantic Facebook group about Papa and was booted out immediately! 



I pray to the idols that somebody, somewhere, somehow, has the time and inclination to write a significant essay length study of this novel.  It is a remarkable work of fiction in every sense of the term.

Here is my usual McGee blueprint rundown:


THE REFERRAL – Someone sends McGee the client.  He doesn’t find the client on his own. Sam Taggart comes to Travis McGee himself, in person.


THE WOMEN – The Travis McGee novels, in essence, are about his various kinds of relationships with various kinds of women.  The crime and recovery elements are almost incidental.  Almost too many to mention – Nora; Shaja; Betty; Felicia; Almah; Junebug; Connie Melgar; Dru.  And all of them get a pretty exhaustive analysis and workout from MacDonald.  Elsewhere on this blog I have a 4100 word blip about the women in the first four Travis McGee novels – this one could easily sustain double that, and more.


THE GROUP SCENE – Some sort of party or orgy figures importantly in the case.  Two – the one at Menterez’s house, where Travis kills the dog Brujo, and the one at Tomberlin’s where he kills Dru.


THE MOTIVE FOR THE INITIAL CRIME  – Always greed, always lust for money – the other main motivations for criminal behavior, jealousy and revenge, are never present.  What everybody wants – the gold statues.





“DO YOU UNDERSTAND THAT?” – This, or a variant, is asked by McGee of the woman he has gotten romantically involved with in the course of the story, or she asks it of him, right before they break up.  Not quite the exact scenario, however:
“Are you going to suggest that we might as well have the game as well as the name?”
“It would be normal to think about it, Connie.  You are pretty spectacular, and you know it.  But I don’t think it is a very good idea.”
“That is what I was going to tell you.  If you suggested it.”


THE SOCIAL COMMENTARY – Remarks, usually negative and disapproving, about the way society is going.
Numerous examples exist; here’s just one: “The bell ringers and flag fondlers have been busy peddling their notion that to make America strong, we must march in close and obedient ranks, to the sound of their little tin-whistle.”



THE PHILOSOPHICAL COMMENTARY – Remarks about humanity and human nature on the whole. Numerous examples exist; here’s just one:  “Ninety nine percent of the tings that ninety nine percent of the people do are entirely predictable, when you have a few lead facts.”









John D. MacDonald: The Quick Red Fox



This novel is horribly dated in a couple of ways.  Firstly, the discussion of lesbianism will appall just about everyone today, though it looks to have been acceptably mainstream at the time of publication.  Secondly, the idea that a celebrity would be so upset at some sexually compromising photos in today’s world is laughable.  Another notable characteristic – there’s a long tradition of American novelists hating on Hollywood, and that attitude is much in evidence here.



THE REFERRAL – Someone sends McGee the client.  He doesn’t find the client on his own. Walter Lowery in San Francisco sent Lysa Dean, via Dana Holtzer, to McGee.  A secret code word is discussed, but no mention of how Lowery knows McGee.



THE WOMEN – The Travis McGee novels, in essence, are about his various kinds of relationships with various kinds of women.  The crime and recovery elements are almost incidental.  Lysa Dean, Dana Holtzer; Skeeter; Ulka Atlund M’Gruder.  There is also a lesbian couple and a scene and some commentary on them that I don’t believe could get published today, because of political correctness and accusations of bigotry.




THE GROUP SCENE – Some sort of party or orgy figures importantly in the case.  There are two: the initial orgy, where the incriminating photos are taken, that takes place before the body of the fiction, ‘offscreen’ as it were, and then the get together at the Barnweathers where Travis confronts Ulka.



THE MOTIVE FOR THE INITIAL CRIME  – Always greed, always lust for money – the other main motivations for criminal behavior, jealousy and revenge, are never present.  The photographer D.C. Ives has the pictures and blackmails Lysa Dean.



“DO YOU UNDERSTAND THAT?” – This, or a variant, is asked by McGee of the woman he has gotten romantically involved with in the course of the story, or she asks it of him, right before they break up.  Dana Holtzer to Travis: “It was all…mixed up and crazy.  It wasn’t me, really.  I don’t know how to tell you.  I’m not like that.  I’m married.  I don’t even know how I could have been so…so silly.  I think it was because of working for her,maybe.”


THE SOCIAL COMMENTARY – Remarks, usually negative and disapproving, about the way society is going.
Numerous examples exist; here’s just one:
“Their radio is unspeakable.  Their television is geared to a minimal approval by thirty million of them.  And anything thirty million people like, aside from their private functions, is bound to be bad.  Their schools are group-adjustment centers, fashioned to shame the rebellious.  Their churches are weekly votes of confidence in God.  Their politicians are enormously likable, never saying a cross word.  The goods they buy grow increasingly more shoddy each year, though brighter in color.  For those who still read, they make do, for the most part, with the portentous grumblings of Uris, Wouk, Rand and others of that witless ilk.”


THE PHILOSOPHICAL COMMENTARY – Remarks about humanity and human nature on the whole. Numerous examples exist; here’s just one:  “The grotesque ultimate of togetherness is the final loneliness of the human spirit.”









Fiction Enhanceable - and Not Enhanceable - By Internet

What I’d like to do in this short essay is identify two very different kinds of fiction and briefly discuss an example of each.  These are not genres but, rather, types – general classifications if you will. 
          The first type is what I’ll call Fiction Enhanceable by Internet, or FEBI for short.  The second is a kind of antithesis, the opposite – Fiction Not Enhanceable by Internet, or Non FEBI.  An example of the first is Tripmaster Monkey by Maxine Hong Kingston; of the second, Mohawk by Richard Russo.  I would surmise, without really having any way of knowing, that there are almost infinite examples of each kind, so consequently the examples I choose here are wholly arbitrary. 

          So what do these terms mean?  Let me preface the discussion by saying that I’m not interested in literary criticism or analysis here – that is, I won’t be talking about plot, character, style, point of view, theme or anything else like that.  I’m going to be discussing how readers can enhance, or not enchance, the reading experience – how they can, or cannot, make the reading of a novel or short story more pleasurable and develop a fuller grasp and understanding and increase enjoyment considerably by Googling things.  In a FEBI this is almost a necessary element of the reading, and in a Non FEBI it cannot help at all because there is nothing to Google. 
Let’s start with Tripmaster Monkey.  Kingston’s novel is astoundingly erudite, and her erudition is largely responsible for what concerns me here.  How so?  Just this – the first chapter (I’m using the first paperback Vintage edition of July, 1990) runs from page three to page thirty five.  In that space I count forty references to either literature or cinema.  (The rest of the book is much the same, though perhaps not in quite so high a ratio.)  I will list a few them shortly for purposes of illustration.
First, let’s consider an imaginary Ideal Average Reader – thirty years old, not a specialist in books or movies, average intelligence, average or moderate level of education.  I submit to you that, without the ability to Google (or, what almost seems unimaginable today, the ability to conduct research the old fashioned way, in a library with reference books), the novel would be infinitely less rewarding and perhaps incomprehensible. 

And I’m only speaking here of direct references to proper names and titles.  There are also inferences that have to be made and understood if the work is to be properly appreciated.  For example, a woman complains about her philosophy course:
          I thought we were going to learn about good and evil, human nature, how to be good.  You know.  What God is like.  You know.  How to live.  But we’re learning about P plus Q arrows R or S.  What’s that, haw?  I work all day, and commute for two hours, and what do I get?  P plus Q arrows R.
The reader is required to understand that the character evidently doesn’t know that the subject of Philosophy is broken down into many subdivisions; she signed up for a course in Mathematical Logic, a la Gottlob Frege, when what she wanted was a course in Ethics.  But if the reader doesn’t know this, or doesn’t have the ability to research it, the whole passage will be hieroglyphics.  This is what I mean by Fiction Enhanceable by Internet – the work becomes infinitely more interesting, understandable, enjoyable, and appreciable. 
I said I would list some of the allusions Kingston makes in the first thirty odd pages, so here they are:
Page 3: Hemingway’s suicide; Olivier’s film of Hamlet
Page 5: The Lady from Shanghai
Page 7: Count Ilya Tolstoy; Michael Sullivan in King Lear
Page 8: Rilke
Page 9: Saroyan; Steinbeck; Kerouac; Twain; Stevenson; Muir; Stegner; Fante; Bulosano; Atherton; Bierce; Norris; Harte
Page 10: Helen Hunt Jackson; Sam Spade and Miles Archer
Page 11: Cecil B. DeMille

And so it’s easy to see how prepared a reader has to be in order to read a novel such as this and, while it might be an extreme example, it serves to illustrate the general point well.  Readers who might otherwise be put off and intimidated by Kingston’s (or anyone else’s) polymath approach need no longer fear it because Google puts everything within easy reach.
But this is not so with a Non FEBI.  The example I’ve selected of this type of fiction, Mohawk by Richard Russo, is a powerful case in point.  Coming in at 418 pages, there is absolutely nothing that the Ideal Average Reader would have to Google whatsoever.  (There are perhaps three small exceptions and even they, in context, are not vital to grasping the novel – Mickey Spillane, Keats, and David Copperfield.)  But nothing is required of the reader other than to read.  Define literature however you wish – whether in terms of F.R. Leavis style Liberal Humanism or in any of the numerous ‘-ism’s of Theory, Mohawk is pure story in the sense that all that needs to be grasped are the characters and what they say and feel and do.  Reading the novel cannot be enhanced by the internet one iota (I discount trivial objections such as “Well some readers may not know too much about cutting leather and they may want to Google some information on it.” We can say that about absolutely anything at all.)  References to outside forces of any kind are simply not given by Russo (they are not required in order to tell the story). 


I hope the differences between the FEBI and the Non FEBI have been made clear; I leave all implications and conclusions about the differences between the two to be investigated by more adventurous scholars and readers.
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John D. MacDonald: A Purple Place for Dying

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This remarkable novel has a lot of layers and textures that are really not apparent at first blush – they come out more fully with repeated readings.  Mixed race love children; subtle racism; sibling love; living one’s philosophy (i.e., John Webb makes his students read Heidegger, Camus, Sartre – and look how he lives his life!); the politics of local ambition (witness the sheriff, Buckleberry); the cool appraisal of people’s lives from someone who has the inside track on them (attorney Mike Mazzari) and on and on.  True, MacDonald’s portrait of the American West is wildly unflattering and hardly genuine – this is a big problem here.  But in the main this one is a total winner.



THE REFERRAL – Someone sends McGee the client.  He doesn’t find the client on his own.
Someone named Fran Weaver refers Mona Yeoman.  It isn’t specified who she is, though we might assume she is one of McGee’s previously satisfied clients.


THE WOMEN – The Travis McGee novels, in essence, are about his various kinds of relationships with various kinds of women.  The crime and recovery elements are almost incidental.
Mona Yeoman; Isobel Webb; Marilyn Hauser; Dolores Estobar; Betty (no last name); Amparo Sasegado.  I have more in depth analysis on my post on this blog about women in the first four McGee novels.




THE GROUP SCENE – Some sort of party or orgy figures importantly in the case. 
Not quite relevant here; if I wanted to really stretch the point I could try to conjure up the scene where Jass brings McGee to his private club.


THE MOTIVE FOR THE INITIAL CRIME  – Always greed, always lust for money – the other main motivations for criminal behavior, jealousy and revenge, are never present.
Jass Yeoman bleeds Mona’s estate (in league with his unscrupulous partners).


“DO YOU UNDERSTAND THAT?” – This, or a variant, is asked by McGee of the woman he has gotten romantically involved with in the course of the story, or she asks it of him, right before they break up.
Here this feeling/sentiment is expressed non verbally, during lovemaking: “Tonight the lovemaking had had that first tart sweetness of impending goodbye.”

THE SOCIAL COMMENTARY – Remarks, usually negative and disapproving, about the way society is going.
Numerous examples exist; here’s just one:
“State Western was one of those new institutions they keep slapping up to take care of the increasing flood of kids.”



THE PHILOSOPHICAL COMMENTARY – Remarks about humanity and human nature on the whole. 
Again, there are many examples; here’s one:
“I do not believe in coincidence.  I believe that if you keep moving, you expose yourself to a better chance of accidents happening, some good and some bad.”







John D. MacDonald: Nightmare in Pink

This second adventure in the series is a little bit cartoonish in plot,though sharp as ever in every other department, and somewhat more violent in the way it gets started – McGee is essentially asked to investigate a murder, that of Howard Plummer.  This is a notch down from the novels that precede and follow it, but still a rip roaring yarn indeed!  And dig the minor characters like the white sweatered girl walking the poodle, the New York cops McGee has to visit, and the ex employees of Armister visits.

The BIG QUOTE – Travis McGee on recreational sex: “If there’s no pain and no loss, it’s only recreational, and we can leave it to the minks.  People have to be valued.”





THE REFERRAL – Someone sends McGee the client.  He doesn’t find the client on his own.  Mike Gibson, McGee’s fellow soldier and wartime buddy, now dying in the hospital, refers McGee to his sister Nina in NYC when her boyfriend Howard Plummer is found dead in the street, the victim of a “mugging”.


THE WOMEN – The Travis McGee novels, in essence, are about his various kinds of relationships with various kinds of women.  The crime and recovery elements are almost incidental.  Nina Gibson; Terry Drummond; Constance Trimble Thatcher; Bonita Hersch; Rossa the Call Girl.  A great variety!


THE GROUP SCENE – Some sort of party or orgy figures importantly in the case.  There are two – Constance Thatcher is throwing a party as she meets with McGee and Nina brings McGee to a gathering of her friends that they leave very quickly after MacDonald indulges in a little satire.



THE MOTIVE FOR THE INITIAL CRIME  – Always greed, always lust for money – the other main motivations for criminal behavior, jealousy and revenge, are never present.  Mulligan, Hersch and Co. lobotomize Charles Armbrister in order to slowly cook his books over the years.




“DO YOU UNDERSTAND THAT?” – This, or a variant, is asked by McGee of the woman he has gotten romantically involved with in the course of the story, or she asks it of him, right before they break up.   Total shmaltz—o-rama near the end of the novel between McGee and Nina:
        “I’ll always love you.  Can you understand that?”
        “Yes, but don’t ever try to make anyone else understand it, Nina.”
        “It will always be too private to tell.”

THE SOCIAL COMMENTARY – Remarks, usually negative and disapproving, about the way society is going.
Numerous examples exist; here’s just one:
        “New York is where it is going to begin, I think.  You can see it coming.  The insect experts have learned how it works with locusts.  Until locust population reaches a certain density, they all act like any grasshoppers.  When the critical point is reached, they turn savage and swarm, and try to eat the world.  One day soon two strangers will bump into each other at high noon in the middle of New York.  But this time they won’t snarl and go on.  They will stop and stare and then leap at each others’ throats in a dreadful silence.”



THE PHILOSOPHICAL COMMENTARY – Remarks about humanity and human nature on the whole. 
Again, there are many examples; here’s one:
        “A good listener is far more rare than an adequate lover.”






John D. MacDonald: The Deep Blue Good-By

       
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       In my humble opinion, The Deep Blue Good-By is a remarkable piece of work by whatever standards you’d like to apply.  I’m not talking about McGee’s comic book like superhero antics in subduing and killing Junior Allen (after all, one of the main purposes of this kind of fiction is to entertain); rather, the intricacy of the plotting, the razorsharp characterizations, the finely tuned and highly observant sense of place (which MacDonald fails with, somewhat, in the McGee novels that he moves outside of Florida), the observations and ruminations of McGee – these are all superb, even amazing. 
        And MacDonald takes chances.  His descriptions of, and explanations for, the way Junior Allen makes both Cathy Kerr and Lois Atkinson essentially his willing, nymphomaniac sex slaves will make every self respecting academic feminist in the world scream in protest.  And he scalds George Brell with 180 degree water to get information out of him, so surely the sadist charge is awaiting somewhere.
        Additionally the characters who move in and out of the novel quickly – the boat salesman Joe True, the waitress Marianne – light up the pages with some special truth.
        In an earlier post I identified seven loosely applicable traits of the early Travis McGee novels; below I look at how they might figure into the situation concerning The Deep Blue Good-By.  But first, here’s the QUOTE OF QUOTES:
        “A naked man who cannot move or talk, and does not know whether it is night or day, and is not told where he is or how he got there, will break very quickly.”
       


THE REFERRAL – Someone sends McGee the client.  He doesn’t find the client on his own.
This is very straightforward here.  Chookie McCall directly refers Cathy Kerr to McGee, face to face.

THE WOMEN – The Travis McGee novels, in essence, are about his various kinds of relationships with various kinds of women.  The crime and recovery elements are almost incidental.
Chookie McCall, Cathy Kerr, and Lois Atkinson are the principals; I’ve studied them in an earlier post on this blog.  I’d overlooked, however, the portrayals of Gerry Brell (which is the best in the book) and the young teens in Junior Allen’s late entourage – Deeleen, Corry, and Patty, also excel.  It’s hard not to sound like a broken record in praising MacDonald’s writing about females.

THE GROUP SCENE – Some sort of party or orgy figures importantly in the case.
In addition to the cruise Junior Allen plans with the teenagers at novel’s end there is the gathering at Brell’s house where McGee punches Lew’s lights out.


THE MOTIVE FOR THE INITIAL CRIME  – Always greed, always lust for money – the other main motivations for criminal behavior, jealousy and revenge, are never present.
Dave Berry and George Brell scheme for gold in and gems on Chowringi Road in Calcutta, among other places.

“DO YOU UNDERSTAND THAT?” – This, or a variant, is asked by McGee of the woman he has gotten romantically involved with in the course of the story, or she asks it of him, right before they break up.
Not applicable here!


THE SOCIAL COMMENTARY – Remarks, usually negative and disapproving, about the way society is going.
Numerous examples exist; here’s just one:
“I am wary of the whole dreary deadening structured mess we have built into such a glittering top-heavy structure that there is nothing left to see but the glitter, and the brute routines of maintaining it.”


THE PHILOSOPHICAL COMMENTARY – Remarks about humanity and human nature on the whole. 
Again, there are many examples; here’s one:
“Reality is in the enduring eyes, the unspoken dreadful accusation in the enduring eyes of a worn young woman who looks at you, and hopes for nothing.”



John D. MacDonald: Common Motifs & Characteristics in the Travis McGee Novels


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In reading through the first five Travis McGee novels by John D. MacDonald – The Deep Blue Good-By, Nightmare in Pink, A Purple Place for Dying, The Quick Red Fox, A Deadly Shade of Gold – I’ve tried to identify some characteristics and motifs that seem to repeat themselves.  The plots of these novels are extremely complicated at times; the characterizations are consistently razorsharp, perceptive, funny, and generally on point; but I think the underlying blueprints are what really give the tales their addictive readability. 
          Again, these only pertain to the first five books, which is how far I’ve gotten in my study, and I don’t claim for them any special importance or significance.

THE REFERRAL – Someone sends McGee the client.  He doesn’t find the client on his own.
THE WOMEN – The Travis McGee novels, in essence, are about his various kinds of relationships with various kinds of women.  The crime and recovery elements are almost incidental.
THE GROUP SCENE – Some sort of party or orgy figures importantly in the case.
THE MOTIVE FOR THE INITIAL CRIME  – Always greed, always lust for money – the other main motivations for criminal behavior, jealousy and revenge, are never present.
“DO YOU UNDERSTAND THAT?” – This, or a variant, is asked by McGee of the woman he has gotten romantically involved with in the course of the story, or she asks it of him, right before they break up.
THE SOCIAL COMMENTARY – Remarks, usually negative and disapproving, about the way society is going.
THE PHILOSOPHICAL COMMENTARY – Remarks about humanity and human nature on the whole.